HMP Swaleside: Learning at its heart

In 2014, PET's Head of Policy, Nina Champion visited HMP Swaleside where staff are putting learning at the heart of the prison's approach to rehabilitation. This film, made for the Prisoner Learning Alliance by Prison Learning TV, meets the people who are benefiting from embedding learning into all aspects of prison life. At HMP Swaleside, learning, education and preparation for life after release are central to the way the prison is run.

“It's about embedding employability skills in daily activity and attaching learning to every possible kind of job", says Sarah Coccia, Governor, HMP Swaleside.

Staff members have come up with innovative approaches to engage learners, like rebranding the gym as a 'Sports College' and offering courses there. This makes good use of a space that is traditionally popular with prisoners, as Gym Officer Nigel Hayward says, “it is a centre for learning, not just a gymnasium to come and lift weights or play football.”

Stock image of prisoner excercising

Embedding essential skills such as Maths and English into practical sports courses is a technique that many prisoners, particularly those who have not had good experiences of learning in school or classrooms, find more accessible. One of the interviewees in the film describes the negative associations he previously had with learning. He said: “I got chucked out of school when I was 14. I couldn't read and write; I used to get embarrassed. People would take the mick out of me and I'd always get into trouble because of it.” Now, having developed these essential skills though courses in the supportive environment of the sports college, he says, “I got hooked on education.”

The approach is clearly successful; some prisoners who started their education in the prison's gym have gone on to complete Open University distance learning degrees. Gaining qualifications gives prisoners a new, positive sense of identity, which can help them plan for their futures.

The film also explores other projects. The library runs the Reading Agency's 'Six book challenge' every year, where prisoners who have difficulties with literacy are encouraged to read and to produce written reports on six books in three months. Library orderly John also advises visitors to the library on education and talks about his experience studying a distance learning course in prison. At the prison's workshop, the focus has moved to embedding essential skills in the tasks given to prisoners, such as health and safety, operating machinery and other technical skills. One prisoner has started teaching in the workshop and he says this has helped him manage his behaviour now. "I'm a different person, now I can tolerate things and I am more patient", he says.

The film highlights the many positive outcomes gained from putting education at the heart of prison. Watch the film or find out more about teaching at HMP Swaleside's gym.